Spectral beings haunt the pages of Alexi Zentner’s eerie, beautifully written first novel, “Touch,” set in the remote woods of Canada. There’s the shapeshifting ijirait; the adlet, which feeds on human blood; the mahaha and wehtiko and qallupilluit, corpselike demons rumored to pursue men who have eaten human flesh. Yet an even more powerful and terrifying force in this story is the northern winter, which over 60 or so years, spanning the late 19th and early 20th centuries, consumes not just individuals but much of the gold rush town of Sawgamet.
“Touch” is narrated by Stephen, a young Anglican priest who has returned to Sawgamet as his mother is dying. He has also been asked by his stepfather, Father Earl, to take over the town’s church. This melancholy homecoming precipitates a flood of memories as strange and beguiling as the town’s history. Most involve Stephen’s grandfather, Jeannot, one of the more remarkable and original characters in recent fiction, a figure who suggests Paul Bunyan as imagined by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
The orphaned Jeannot founded Sawgamet when he was just 16, “whip-thin, wire-strong, and able to both give and absorb a brutal amount of punishment.” For 39 days, he journeyed through the wilderness, accompanied only by a dog stolen from a young witch, before building a shelter near the Sawgamet River. The following night he is visited by a qallupilluit, a monster “who felt the greed for gold running through Jeannot’s body and had come to claim him.”
Unexpectedly, the qallupilluit spares Jeannot, and the next day the young man finds a single nugget of gold in the belly of a fish. After spending the winter in the forest, he briefly returns to civilization, where news of his discovery spurs a gold rush. But Jeannot never finds another bit of gold, and the wilderness won’t forgive him — or his descendants — for bringing men and women to this isolated outpost.
Zentner’s elegant prose gives even his more macabre set pieces the slightly detached, almost delicate feeling of a folk tale: Stephen’s father and sister interred beneath the river ice where they have drowned, frozen fingers almost touching; Jeannot and his pregnant bride trapped for months within Sawgamet’s mill beneath 30 feet of snow; the violent new river spawned by snowmelt when spring finally comes in mid-July.
“Touch” is a lovely debut, at once dreamy and riveting, like a heavy snowfall watched from a vantage point safe indoors, beside a blazing fire.
A newly revised edition of Hand’s 1997 novel “Glimmering” will be published this fall.
By Alexi Zentner
Norton. 264 pp. $24.95